Last week, on June 8, 2017, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), based at Syracuse University, a non-partisan research data center at Syracuse, has filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) charging Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – a part of the Department of Homeland Security — with unlawfully withholding records on deportations. The lawsuit follows an earlier lawsuit filed on May 9th.
The records track ICE deportations under its “Secure Communities Program” (S-Comm). The “Secure Communities Program,” which was piloted in 2008 under President George W. Bush, relies on partnerships among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and integrated databases, to speed up deportations. Following criticism of the program by civil liberties and immigrant rights groups, President Obama had suspended the program in 2014 and replaced it with the Priority Enforcement Program. Under Executive Order 13768, entitled Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, signed by President Trump on January 25, 2017, however, “Secure Communities” was reinstated and replaced the Priority Enforcement Program.
Under the “secure Communities” program, the fingerprints of any human being who is arrested and booked into a local jail for any reason can be matched against ICE’s immigration database. This allows ICE to initiate deportation proceedings against non-citizens. Critics have complained that the program eroded immigrant communities’ trust in police and that it – based on the government’s own statistics – “ensnares huge numbers of low-level offenders and non-criminals in its dragnet, fueling mass deportations of productive community members and the destruction of U.S. families,“ states the ACLU on its website .
Prior to the suspension of the program in 2014, ICE had released detailed case-by-case data about deportation under “Secure Communities.” However, following the reinstatement of the program in January, “ICE began refusing to disclose much of the information produced in its previous responses to TRAC’s FOIA requests,” writes TRAC in a June 8, 2017, press release.
In March 2017, Open the Government initiated a letter to the Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security, which was supported by a coalition of organizations dedicated to government openness and accountability, privacy, human rights, civil rights, and immigrant rights, including the Society of American Archivists. In the letter, the groups urged Secretary Kelly and Attorney General Sessions to address concerns stemming from recent executive actions on immigration and refugees. “The Executive Orders on immigration raise substantial concerns about privacy protection and government accountability. Public data allows the public to hold its government accountable – but that is only possible if government information is released in a complete, consistent, unbiased, and open manner.” Following this letter, TRAC filed an earlier FOIA suit in May 2017 charging Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with unlawfully withholding information related to ICE’s immigration enforcement actions and its interaction with other law enforcement agencies.
We will keep you up to date on the court’s decisions.
By Katja Hering